courage

Losing (and finding) my voice.

finding menopause losing voice dysphonia

The symptoms started last summer vacation in Colorado. In the car practicing scales, my voice cracked — a common enough for a 14 year-old boy, but never me. The more I sang, the more hoarse my voice became. It was terrifying.

I was 52, had left a good job in marketing to be a jazz singer only a year and a half prior — and now this. As always, I jumped to worst-case scenario and cried on my husband Dave’s shoulder that night. “Will you still love me if I can’t sing?” I half-seriously asked him. More important, I wondered how much I’d love myself if I couldn’t sing.

Googling “vocal problems, hoarseness, perimenopause,” I discovered women often experience a loss, changing or lowering of their voice at mid-life. Opera singers, in particular, age out and quietly retreat from public performance, avoiding the public humiliation — often, only in their forties.

A life-long singer, I had taken my voice for granted, wondering instead if age or looks would be the determining factors in success (heck, even those few extra pounds), all the while not realizing my entire career rested on two tiny vibrating pieces of tissue less than an inch long. Talk about feeling vulnerable.

Of immediate concern, was my rapidly approaching debut at the Lewiston Jazz Festival. How ironic would it be that after years of applying to the festival, my first performance there would be diminished or, God forbid, even cancelled?

The more I researched, gastric reflux (a common malady of menopause) appeared to be the direct cause of my problems. Simply, stomach acids were frying my vocal cords and affecting their ability to vibrate properly and produce sound.

The next morning, I hit the pharmacy and started taking Prilosec – which belongs to a group of drugs called proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) or acid-reducers. Within days, the vocal cracking stopped. My range returned, and the relief was as big as the surrounding Rockies.

My performance at the Jazz Festival was a success, but vocal problems continued to dog me. Again, I turned to the internet to research my condition. In addition to preventing reflux by not eating large or late-in-the-day meals, modifying a number of habits would keep my voice limber: avoiding caffeine, alcohol and decongestants and raising the head of my bed six inches.

Just how important was it to keep singing? I even gave up my beloved red wine. And, as averse as I am to medication, hormone replacement therapy soon joined my medication regime.

Finally, having exhausted self-diagnosing, I visited an otolaryngologist. He confirmed reflux, but to great relief, my vocal cords were only irritated, not permanently damaged. It also turned out (in danger of having doctor creds removed), I had been taking Prilosec incorrectly.

So, I’m singing again. The range is back and doesn’t skip. And yet … this is not voice I had in my thirties and forties. It’s not quite as lush or round. It sounds (gasp!) older. I hear the difference in my recently-recorded CD and am not entirely happy.

These days, I have to work much harder to maintain vocal fluidity and limberness. The passage from chest voice to head voice is not as easily navigated. I have to sing every single day to maintain tone and flexibility.

And yet, there is something I did not have in my thirties and forties — vulnerability and connection. These songs have been lived, revealing both broken hearts and simmering passions.

Now 53, I also believably project sensuality and playfulness. I take myself less seriously and am more confident. I’m not sacrificing the message of the song to attain perfect tone – the phrasing is more conversational. You also hear that on the CD.

This last year has seen the death of a number of friends, most of whom were artists. The world is the lesser for it. I wish I could hear just one more of their songs or see another of their paintings. Yet, here I am, alive, sometimes tempted to stop sharing my gifts out of vanity or perfectionism.

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Funny, when singing, my flaws and limitations are forgotten. In that moment, I am a conduit for God or Spirit. I’m lost in the song, creating joy, and often (especially with the elderly) making someone’s day. My audiences connect, and through the music, buried emotions are unearthed. My work matters.

Yes, I am an older woman with an older voice, but I have a compelling story to tell and hearts to touch. Until my audiences stop listening, I’ll keep singing.  

My Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.

big hairy audacious goal spider

The first time I did it, I was 11 years old. The local SPCA shelter was low on money and was forced to euthanize the overflow of puppies and kitties. It just about broke my heart. Something had to be done. So, we put on a show.

I envisioned a vaudeville extravaganza with corny skits, music, and written-out parts for the available cast — my two sisters and a couple of our best friends. Even our flea-ridden, mangy collie Kingboy would have a walk-on role.

We canvassed the neighborhood, selling flimsy paper tickets for 75 cents each that Dad had photocopied at work, baked cookies and made lemonade. We hung up a clothesline and pinned old tablecloths on it. Any available fold-up chairs were wrangled from the neighbors and lined up hopefully in our garage.

After one whole week of rehearsal — largely consisting of me telling everyone what to do and pitching fits when they WOULD NOT follow my directions — we were ready for the hoards of Harvey Road theatergoers.

And you know what? They came: mothers, fathers, squalling toddlers — even that new black family down the street (exotic for Grand Island) we’d welcomed with a cake. Everyone came with money in their pockets expecting fun, but knowing they were supporting something larger than themselves.

They clapped and listened appreciatively to our overwrought dramas in that hot, fly filled garage. They bought the overpriced brownies and Kool-Aid because five raggedy kids and a reluctant dog wanted to do something big and help something worthy.

I’m doing it again. I’ve put together a crack team of musicians and we’ve recorded a wonderful CD. We’re going to release it at a big party for a really great cause — The Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP). And boy, are they audacious too. They believe that with education and service they can grow and bring healthy food to the West Side of Buffalo.

The tickets aren’t cheap ($20 presale), but all of the proceeds and a percentage of the CD sales will go to MAP. We’d like to buy them a walk in cooler for their fresh, locally-grown produce.

Please join us on Friday, March 28 at 7:00pm at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Buffalo. We’ve upgraded the cookies and lemonade to wine, desserts and appetizers. Instead of five awkward kids you’ll see some of Buffalo’s best jazz musicians. Kingboy the collie won’t be there, but if you’ll come, we promise you one hell of a show.

 

5 tools to supercharge your resolutions!

2014 tools resolutions weight loss improvement

I hate New Year’s Day. It’s that time of year when I flog myself over holiday misdeeds of over-eating, not meditating and being too sedentary. My diet for the last month has mostly consisted of cookies and meat — a kind of of modified Paleo. I rarely got to the gym and didn’t eat a single fruit all Christmas, if you don’t count the raspberry jam in the thumbprint cookies I snarfed.

I scramble for a resolution that will shortcut me to greater fitness, flexibility and the loss of those extra pounds that have overstayed their welcome like a bad holiday guest. But, the good thing is, at the age of 52, I’ve had some success in personal transformation.

It’s times like these, when the inky darkness of winter and post-holiday doldrums threaten to engulf me, that I think on past victories and remember the principles and practices that have led to lasting transformation. Maybe they’ll help you too.

Acceptance
Nine years ago I had an uncomfortable moment of truth when unexpectedly viewing a photo of myself in a bathing suit. It was a brown, ruched affair and I looked exactly like an unhappy potato on legs. After a fat caliper test, I was appalled to learn of a body fat percentage of 30% — sneakily close to obese. Instead of denying reality or hating myself and drowning in a sea of Ben & Jerry’s, I calmly made peace with my body as it was — then lost twenty pounds.

Forgiveness
The best time to make a meaningful change in life is (insert number) years ago. The next best time is today. I stayed in a sad and unfulfilling marriage for 25 years. It was tempting to blame myself for the lost years and all the love not gotten, but it was pointless. I could not have left a moment sooner than I did. I looked kindly on the girl I was, embraced her anyway, and learned from her mistakes to build a new life of love and fulfillment.

Teachability
I was a stiff-necked kid who couldn’t be taught a single thing — an unfortunate result of being a naturally talented, overly adored first-born girl in a competitive family. But, talent is a bus that doesn’t go to the end of the line without a refuel — that’s where teachers and receptivity come in.

When I entered my thirties and wanted to progress in music, my father delicately suggested I take voice lessons from his choirmaster. The teacher could not have been more encouraging, and soon I quit bellowing like a moose and started really singing. A good teacher (and a willing attitude) has been the fastest way to learning new skills and making big life changes.

Moderation
When I was 18 and a freshman in college I started running with the cross-country team. I went from being relatively sedentary to running five miles a day — every day. On the advent of our big first meet, my lower legs were in excruciating pain. A doctor’s visit diagnosed shin splints — painful micro-breaks in the shinbones — a result of over-training.

As an adult, I’ve learned to pace myself and get some form of exercise every day, even if it’s just a leisurely walk with a friend. On icy, windy days I might choose the stationary bike in the basement with the latest from Netflix. At times I take it easy on myself and do almost nothing physically. After 34-some years of mostly continual fitness, I’m in it for the long haul and realize that slow and steady truly does win the race.

Courage
Two years before quitting my job, I knew I wanted to walk away. But, the idea of leaving a 30-year career filled me with anxiety. For all my blather about taking chances and being adventurous, I am, essentially, a groove creature.

After crunching the numbers with my husband and determining we could (frugally) live on his income, I hit a wall. I called it every name in the book, but it was generic, yellow-labeled fear. I drew on the wisdom of Mark Twain’s bromide, “Courage is not the lack of fear. It is acting in spite of it” and jumped into the abyss and got to work. I have not looked back. Now fear is taken as a sign that I’m onto something. Let the adventure begin!

This year, I have made some resolutions: put away my clothes after wearing them; lose five pounds; write a business plan; complete that book I’ve been talking about for years; write thank you notes; de-clutter the house. Some of them I’ll honor, others will burst like yesterday’s champagne bubbles. What I won’t do is hate, nag or be unkind to myself. That’s one resolution I’m planning on keeping.

 

Be kind. Start with you.

vulnerability kindness self love hand butterfly

The contrast between the women in the two videos could not have been more stark.

The first woman kept her head down, talking lovingly to a baby in her lap, not looking up until addressed directly by the cameraman. And then, she looked pained, as if she found showing her face excruciating — for good reason. She was heavy — lumpish, her face shiny with oil and beet red with acne. Her hair was short, manly and dishwater blonde. Her glasses were thick, large and unfashionable, as were her clothes. After awkwardly facing the camera, the woman’s head dropped back down to the baby in her lap — closed again to scrutiny, trying to hide on a front porch in the mid-day sun.

The second woman is seen from a distance, singing to a crowded, buzzing concert hall. She’s wearing a low cut, body-hugging, cherry red dress revealing a shapely, lean figure. Her arms are flung wide to the well-dressed audience, face open and happy as she moves smoothly to the music on glittery black stilettos, accentuating muscled legs. Her fashionably cut, shoulder-length blond hair swings to the music — The Way You Look Tonight.

Both women are me. The first video was shot 23 years ago, when I was a mom in my twenties, the second, from a concert I recently performed while visiting relatives in Minnesota. Not long after that event, those same relatives and I viewed that first video of our kids … and a much different version of myself at 29 years of age.

It was fun to see our now-grown children as babies and toddlers, but I had not reckoned how viewing my younger, tortured self would feel. I had all but forgotten that girl, destroyed old pictures, and expunged my mental palette of her sadness, agony and ugliness. Viewing her, I felt the old shame and revulsion, but something more — deep compassion.

I wanted to reach into the screen and pull her away from that peeling porch, that ramshackle house and take her to a place of love and gentleness. I longed to undo the ridicule she received in middle school, free her from the cage of apparent security that conservative religion had provided, enlighten her to her latent musical talent, but most of all, show her the inherent beauty her body possessed, the tenderness in her blue-green eyes, uncover the radiant smile hidden for so long.

I yearned to tell her that she deserved kindness and respect from everyone around her. I needed to let her know that as long as she hated her body and waged war on her face she would mistreat it and feed herself poorly. I wished to reveal that most women know tricks — magic tricks to play up their beauty and minimize flaws to stunning effect. I could teach those tricks to her!

I felt desperate to rewind time and save her, but realized, with a jolt, that I already had. The massive changes which began shortly after that first video, had transformed me and culminated with a powerful metamorphosis; I finally accepted myself — no exceptions. I embraced flaws and fears, then parted with an old self-image that thought unkindness was OK, that not being loved was my lot. I learned that the most important person to impart that love was me.

Secure in that love, I left a marriage that was long dead, built a new life, and created an exterior as beautiful as the interior I had always possessed. And, in a surreal reversal of fate, now publicly performed with exuberance, power, and femininity — about as far from that 29 year-old as a housefly is from a phoenix.

My reaction to the first video made me wonder if I’d accepted my shadow side: what Carl Jung described as the “aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself” — in this case, vulnerability, weakness, fear of abandonment and self-hatred. But, it turns out, the aversion to the video was a merely a vestige of an old self.

I am not the insecure and critical girl I once was. The gentleness and patience I now grant to myself is given to everyone in my life. I can walk into the burning buildings of people’s misery and troubles, with warmth and empathy. The alchemy is complete.

But sooner or later, age brings deterioration and illness. Looks are lost and talents may fade. Careers end, fortunes evaporate, loved ones die. What then? In making true peace with the awkward, unattractive girl I once was, I will return to that same bedrock of love and acceptance for the aged, diminished woman I will surely become.

I deserve it — we all do. Then, now and forever.

 

“Take your hands out of your pockets!”

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As I write this, Harvey Rogers, Buffalo jazz's best friend lies gravely ill in a cancer hospital.

Harvey has been a welcome fixture at all the local jazz joints for decades, supporting celebrities and unknowns alike with warmth and appreciation, and, in my case, helpful critique.

It was my first public jazz gig and I was frozen with fear. In my previous incarnation as a folk singer I had played large and small audiences and had learned to work a crowd, but always with a guitar strapped on my chest, sharing original tunes. This was different. Just me, sound, audience — nothing in between — vulnerable.

Harvey sat in the front row, his brown eyes snapping with attention behind the thick spectacles. As I began, Harvey nodded to the music, inspiring confidence. After three songs, I confessed nervousness and that it was my first jazz gig, but was learning. At that, Harvey yelled out “Take your hands out of your pockets!” I laughed, and the rest of the gig went just fine. At the break, Harvey was complimentary, then suggested a list of songs I should consider in my repertoire — many of which have become favorites.

In the three and a half years since that gig, I’ve paid close attention to what I do with my hands and the rest of my body. Stagecraft is hard work. More importantly, I’ve learned to take my hands out of my pockets in other ways. I've played with guitarists in addition to wonderful pianists, occasionally incorporating a sax, gotten acting as well as vocal coaching, and, in a few days I'm going to Jazz Camp at Nazareth College. I’m stepping out from the familiar and hope to learn more about theory and improvisation — how to cut loose, scat and perform with creativity and courage.

Next week, whether Harvey is on this earth to delight us for more days or just living on in our memories, he will be with me at Nazareth, urging me to take chances, sing with wild abandon and take my hands out of my pockets for good and all.

Thanks Harv.

Hell and heaven in the Grand Canyon.

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WARNING: DO NOT attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day. Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion.

It was on my bucket list, “See the Grand Canyon.” But, I didn’t want to see it from the South rim like a middle-aged tourist starting to slow down. In spite of the warning, I wanted a challenge — to see, hear, feel and consume the canyon as the adventurer I’d like to think I am — a modern-day Viking.

At 52, I had found myself, like many women my age, modifying physical activities in concession to fear or injuries: water and downhill skiing were too dangerous; running beat up hips and knees; overnight camping in a tent — too uncomfortable. At the gym I clung to the same ritual of treadmill, stair climber, then weights — lulled by the familiar.

As frightening as that canyon warning was, I didn’t want to not do it and admit I was forever closed-off to adventure and growth, the sort that comes from pushing physical limits. The canyon offered a challenge to the complacency of age and routine and, I was to find, much more.

The original plan had been to hike down in one day, stay at Phantom Ranch in the bottom for the night, then hike back up the next day. But accommodations at the ranch fill up a year in advance. Passes to tent camp at Bright Angel campground were also long gone.

My husband Dave was dubious, but descriptions of supplies and fitness levels needed to complete the hike reassured him. Up for an adventure himself, he got on board, and soon packages started arriving from Amazon with things like Camelbak hydration packs and a case of Clif Bars.

We started hitting the gym harder than normal and decided the stair climber might be the best thing to prepare us for all those steps. Dave daily put in an hour on the stair climber — me, usually a half hour, occasionally a full hour. Did I mention the hike was estimated to take 12 hours round trip?

Neither of us had given footwear much thought. Dave had some steel-toed boots from work he thought were appropriate. I chose Keen All-Terrain sandals, in hindsight about as appropriate for the canyon as red stilettos. Both of us would have been in a vortex of pain had we continued on that path.

For weeks my dreams were anxious — filled with images of dry landscapes and falling off sheer precipices. The thought of calling it off occurred many times. This didn’t have to be undertaken and what exactly was I proving? At my age, did I really need to take a treacherous hike we were barely prepared for?

grand-canyon-hike-courage-david-lundy-mari-mcneil

We arrived in Arizona to stay with my brother Greg and his family five days before the canyon. Greg, well aware of the dangers of high-altitude hiking in the heat, took us on three killer climbs to prepare us for the rigors of our adventure. Our first trek up Black Mountain had us sucking wind like Grandma at a polka. Nothing in Buffalo, NY could have prepared us for the thin air.

While sturdy, my Keen open-air sandals collected stones, dirt and sand every few steps. Dave’s boots were heavy and increasingly hot. A subsequent trip to Big 5 Sporting Goods outfitted us with Coleman mid-ankle, lightweight boots. Two more rigorous hikes further hardened us for the Canyon ahead, or so we thought.

We woke in our hotel room at 5am the morning of our adventure, neither of us having slept much. After filling our Camelbaks with water and food, we powdered our socks, Vasalined our feet and laced up the new boots. Then, we drove to the main parking lot on the South Rim of the Canyon where a shuttle bus would take us to the South Kaibab trailhead.

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On the bus was a grizzled 60-something park ranger with a braided Fu-Manchu beard viewing us with a practiced eye. I’m sure our Wonder Bread whiteness and un-scuffed boots didn’t escape his notice. “How far you folks hiking today?” “We’re hiking top to bottom in one day” answered Dave. (crickets) “We recommend against that. You folks know how long that takes?” “We figure 12 hours or so.” He nodded gravely in agreement and repeated his warning.

Our first view of the Canyon had been spectacular the previous night, but the hike down South Kaibab continually took our breath away. The path is stunning and recommended for its panoramic views. It’s also steep. Deep ruts filled with dust and bracketed by logs formed the steps we were to become quite familiar with.

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Tangled Utah Junipers greeted us early on the trail but vegetation became sparse and desert-like as we descended and the temperature rose. Spiky agave plants studded the hillsides, some with peculiar flowering stalks up to 12 feet tall — sending up a swan song before they died.

Our path zig-zagged down sheer cliffs of brick red, sage green and chalk white. Each turn revealed queer rock formations carved by the Colorado River eons ago, but what we noticed most was the silence. No wind, car or tourist noises broke that hollow, cathedral hush. The azure sky was empty of all but the wispiest clouds and the occasional floating hawk.

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As we moved down the path, we encountered a couple of mule teams coming up the trail loaded with tourists and garbage from the ranch, their droppings odiferous landmines steaming under the hot canyon sun. Aside from this, there were surprisingly few hikers along the trail and mostly we trekked by ourselves.

The old ranger had warned us that injuries were more common on descent, while exhaustion and dehydration were risks on the ascent. This was true for us. Within a few hours, Dave’s old knee injury ominously began to act up. My hips became sore from the pounding of each dusty step.

Walking sticks helped but we further wondered what on Mars we were doing when we viewed a sign mid-way advising that “Descending the canyon is optional — ascent is mandatory.” In fact,
if you do get sick or stuck on the trail, it costs $4,500 to get airlifted out in a helicopter.

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We caught our first glimpse of the Colorado River about three hours in at the portentously named Skeleton Point. It was tiny, copper green and impossibly far away. It looked so refreshing and inviting. Dave reasoned his knees would not be an issue on the longer ascent and, in an act of faith or foolishness, we continued down the increasingly steep switchbacks.

Four hours and 7.1 miles from the start, we reached river’s edge after crossing the Kaibab Suspension Bridge. It was over 100 degrees by that time — it had been just 42 degrees at the trailhead that morning. I soaked my hot and swollen feet in the river and dunked my head in clear water cold enough for an ice cream headache. Then, we hiked the flat half-mile or so to Phantom Ranch. Any illusions of splendor or luxury were soon dashed.

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Designed by Mary Colter and constructed in 1922, Phantom Ranch lodge is of mostly stone construction surrounded by rustic cabins. The dining room has long wood benches and tables with florescent lighting overhead — not much different than the rough-hewn Girl Scout camps I went to in the 60’s.

We sucked down the fresh lemonade they sold ($4.99 a glass, but so worth it!) and ate the contents of our packs — beef jerky, dried mango, Clif bars and trail mix. After an hour’s rest, we got back on the trail for the arduous uphill climb.

At first Bright Angel trail gradually inclines, but then dismayingly descends while switchbacking up and down near the Colorado. It’s an easier climb up than the steep Kaibab would have been, which is why it was so much longer.

As the temperature climbed, my hands began to swell alarmingly. I had not thought to take my wedding ring off and my fingers were puffing like shiny bratwursts. My slightly heat-addled brain I reasoned I could flag down the occasional ranger we encountered to cut my ring off if needed. Soaking my head and hands in every icy stream we encountered felt good, but didn’t help the swelling.

The risk of dehydration is very real on the uphill. We continually sucked water from our Camelbaks, their lifeline tubes positioned at our mouths, but did not urinate once during the 6 ½ hour uphill climb. The intense Arizona sun evaporated our sweat as soon as it left our bodies.

There is far more vegetation on Bright Angel Trail than on Kaibab. About 1/3 of the way up we saw an enormous cottonwood tree — limbs splaying over the trail like angel’s wings, its shade welcome in the sweltering heat.

As the winds shifted, we smelled the most intoxicating fragrance — what I later learned was the flowering Cliff Rose. It was spicy, sweet and disconcertingly, given the heat, brought me back to my childhood and the smell of incense in church at Christmas.

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Dave was right about his knees not hurting, but we felt increasingly fatigued after three hours, and rested halfway up at Indian Gardens. We refilled our water and ate the dried, but surprisingly appetizing snacks. The thermometer read 114 degrees but shade was found, and with my hat over my face I took a short nap.

Refreshed and encouraged that we were roughly 2/3 of the way through with our ill-advised adventure we headed off confidently — cockily — up the trail. The worst, however, was yet to come.

The gradual incline behind us was replaced by a steep and relentlessly climbing trail. Switchback after switchback did not even seem to make a dent in the towering rise of cliffs above us. Viewing the sheer drop of the Canyon walls I could not imagine how our path could possibly take us to the top, and pictured a giant ladder propped upright for the final 1,000 feet.

My legs began to feel like licorice, back sore from the pack, fingers swollen and throbbing — this with hours to go. Another warning we had received from a ranger was “Oh, you won’t die, but the last hour of the hike you’ll wish you had.” Dave and I grimly trudged on.

We stopped every 15 minutes or so to chug down water, catch our breath and appreciate the view. When our eyes met, there was only sympathy and exhaustion, though Dave could have understandably carped at me for my hare-brained idea. But, we were in this together and there was to be no blame. We didn’t even have the energy to talk, other than the occasional “You’re doing great.”

The final hour of the hike became a battle of wills: That of the whiny baby girl inside of me who wanted to cry, rest and complain, or the warrior who had given birth and raised two children, survived a nasty divorce and built a new life of love and courage. “If I have survived ­_______, then I can survive this” kept swirling in my head like a mantra.

We were frequently fooled by what appeared to be the end of the trail, but was yet another heartbreaking switchback. Energetic tourists wearing flip-flops would pass us going down, chatting easily among themselves with no clue as to the epic drama unfolding before them. I hated them and their fresh legs. I imagined we looked like zombies with our hollow eyes and sweat and dirt-stained skin.

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At last, six hours after beginning our climb, a final rise revealed Kolb Studio, the end of our trail. A crowning surge of adrenaline powered us to the top, surrounded by tourists. We kissed each other tearfully, disbelieving, and hugged, leaning on each other for support, then enlisted a Danish tourist to snap our photo — our swelled hands raised in victory.

I would not hike the Canyon in one day again but have no regrets. Some part of me knew it was going to be grueling and bring me to the edge of endurance but was OK with that. My unpreparedness enabled me to take an adventure of a lifetime and pick up what the Old Testament Israelites described as a “stone of remembrance.”

The stone I now carry at midlife is tenacity: that white-knuckle attribute which powers through illness, depression, loss and discouragement — ultimately more important than either talent or luck.

The Grand Canyon hike — so physically punishing — also energized and reminded me that despite my age, I have depths not yet plumbed; strengths not yet drawn on, but that may well serve on the sometimes-uphill climb ahead.

 

 

Envy in the arts (and how to get over ourselves).

envy arts green jealousy flower

When I was seven, I wanted to kill my friend, Jeannie Stevens. Every year, our local supermarket sponsored an Easter-themed coloring contest with the hotly-desired prize of a giant Easter basket filled chock-a-block with glistening jelly beans, epic chocolate bunnies, and pillowy marshmallow Peeps.

As serious as a heart attack — I’d take out 48 crayons and, zen-like, shade and color the black outlined Easter scene to waxy Crayola perfection, this time sure of winning.

The entries papered the store by the thousands like an explosion of Buddhist prayer flags, yet every year, inexplicably, unfairly, tragically, classmate Jeannie Stevens won the contest and the grand prize basket. This annual travesty persisted, though I was sure my coloring was as good as hers.

Thomas Aquinas’ description of envy as “sorrow for another’s good” did not even begin to describe the toxic bile I internally spewed at having lost, yet again. I wished Jeannie nothing but eventual capitulation and annihilation — and she was my friend!

I would like to say my envy has been conquered in adulthood, but that wouldn’t be true. I flinch when a fellow singer (usually female) gets to play a desired venue and critique her performance, adding up what I possess that might be better than she. I obsess over festivals and clubs not booked and seethe about the method and politics involved in the choosing of acts. I’ve often said bitterly (in my head)

“Who do ya’ gotta know in this town to get a gig at …”

If you have never had that sour metallic taste in your mouth as another enjoyed success, advantage, acclaim, reward or publicity in your creative field, congrats and all that (barf). You can stop reading here and wish your fellow Miss America contestants the best of luck as you maintain your Vaseline smile and clutch your Miss Congeniality trophy.

For the rest of us flat-footed Hobbits, envy is a familiar, if not often admitted emotion. In fact, evolutionary scientists believe it’s a natural condition with hard-wired roots. Envy is a tool to evaluate our rank in the competition for resources. It helped our cavemen ancestors — and now us — know when to hit the gas and try harder for the goods.

But, let’s face it. Envy is ugly — one reason we deny it and pretend we’re above it. In fact, Evolutionary psychologists Sarah Hill and David Buss cite research that we respond to envy with either ambition (I’ll show them!), submission (withdrawal, white flag, denial — it didn’t matter anyway), or destruction (@Jeannie Stevens). None of these strategies are particularly noble or empowering.

Maybe there is another way. In a search to better handle my still-operating envy and jealousy over other’s successes, I interviewed painters, singers, musicians, actors who admitted to not always being able to quiet the five year-olds inside them caterwauling “what about meeee?!?” — brave souls willing to cop to envy, but also share creative methods of coping and thriving with this very human emotion.

Reach higher.
Often, we’re most envious of those who are similar to us – our artist friends and acquaintances. This can poison a relationship but also limit our prospects and vision. Opening our eyes to world-class artists helps us to attain greater heights and exit the local rat race. Painter Phil Durgan doesn’t waste his time envying his peers their success: “I've only envied trailblazers (Duchamp, Picasso, Basquiat) because they discovered something before I did. Hats off to them! Because they, too, envied someone else.”

Believe in your own path.
When you have discovered your mission, you will not have time nor reason to focus on someone else’s. Actor and singer Kerrykate Abel states it this way: “The older I get, the more I realize how individual everyone’s creative path is. While it is true that sometimes it does seem that some people have more opportunities than others, it all evens out, and I am a firm believer in creating your own destiny and opportunities. If you want what someone else has, go out and make it happen — the only thing standing in the way is you!”

Work Harder.
As an adolescent and sometimes an adult, I’d respond to hearing a better singer by either criticizing them or taking myself out of the competition. Now, after reflection, I head to the basement and practice — my only competition being the voice that needs to improve – my own. The opportunities seem to grow in direct proportion to the amount of work I put in, or, as Samuel Goldwyn said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Learn from it.
Instead of blaming the process of selection, denigrating the actor she lost out to or avoiding the play she didn’t get cast in, Actor Loraine O'Donnell studies her own process: “When I don't get a part, I look back to see if there was something I could have improved on, learn from it and move on. Quite often not getting the part will light a fire under you creatively and actually help you to become a better artist.”

Actor Peter Michael Marino uses a similar approach when witnessing a superior performance: “I usually just try and figure out why someone in my field is doing better as opposed to resenting them for doing well.”

Josie DiVincenzo, also an actor, is refreshingly honest with her struggles with jealousy, wondering, “What's wrong with me that I didn't get the thing the other person did? Or, I get angry at the people choosing, thinking it's not fair that they favor that other person, and also wonder what magic or trick or ‘je ne sais quoi’ that person has that I don't have, LOL.” But, Josie ultimately derives insight from her feelings: “In the end, I always realize it's my internal work I must do to not hang my happiness or blame on someone else's choices or life.”

Count your blessings. When we are faced with another’s success it’s easy to forget our own creative wins — the phenomena of “what have you done for me lately?” Actor Peter Palmisano responds to envy by telling himself to “Stop being an asshole and forget it. I already consider myself to be very lucky in my ‘career,’ so I have no business being jealous of anyone else‘s success.”

Embrace your own bad self.
Like a beach ball forced under water, repressed envy can pop up and hit us in the face.  Accepting our emotions may be the fastest way to process through them. Pianist Michael McNeill freely admits his own struggles with envy: “I stew. Then I remind myself that I'm on my own musical path, and while the things we commonly associate with success can be helpful in developing one's music, the music comes first, and I can keep making my music without outward signs of success. But sometimes I still stew even after that.”

And if all else fails …

Ponder your mortality.
The Buddhists are big on picturing their dead and decaying bodies while meditating. Pretty grim, but it puts petty concerns like fame into perspective. Or, if you prefer, a gentler take from the Bible:

People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades.
~ 1 Peter 1:24

In the bigger view, what we do here on earth is not nearly as important as it often seems and fades with stunning swiftness.

As I did when I was seven (and sometimes even now), we can allow envy to sour our souls and alienate us from our fellow artists, or we can let it be our signal to work harder, love more and let go of our self-importance. 

I’m still working on it.

Rockin’ this nose. The one I was born with.

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He meant well. “Have you ever considered a nose job?” He said it with great delicacy and care, feeling it would improve my chances of succeeding in bigger market cities as a jazz singer. My response was measured, “I hadn’t considered it, but wouldn’t rule it out.” He went on to share the long list of performers he knew that had, including himself. “Why do you think I look so young?" I had to admit, for his age, he did look good.

I have my beloved father’s nose — a German-Irish nose, a not-small nose that shows no sign of shrinking with age. It never bothered me. Or, hadn’t — until now.

I am 51 years old. Many of those years were spent in self-loathing and holding myself up to unattainable, model-like standards. I had a love-hate relationship with my body and it held me hostage from doing the thing I loved the most — singing jazz, instead, spending 12 years as a folk singer, a safe place where an ugly duckling like myself could hide. It was only after a painful divorce that I learned to embrace and love my form in all its glory, with all its flaws. And three years ago, I switched from singing original folk music to jazz — finally feeling sexy and confident enough to get out from behind the guitar and sing the music I was born to sing.

Last January I quit my pleasant, secure day job to become a full-time singer. In addition to the loss of a respectable income and benefits, I have paid a very high price to make this change; I take voice lessons from two coaches, work weekly with a pianist/arranger to build my repertoire, read books on music, study classic recordings and sing for hours in the basement, car and bathroom. Each and every gig is widely promoted with e-mail, Facebook, posters and press releases. On some gigs I compensate my musicians from my own pocket — just for the exposure. Maybe this nose suggestion could be filed in the “price I have to pay” column.

The doctor was highly regarded. He answered every question with intelligence and thoughtfulness. By his reckoning, he had performed more rhinoplasties than anyone in the area. I knew one of his patients, and his work was subtle and attractive. He did not overpromise. This was the guy.

I recently attended a benefit that featured a number of vocal acts from New York City. All of them were smooth and polished — most were beautiful, svelte and dewy-fresh. They had stage presence and some had great patter, astounding ranges and vocal clarity. And, while I enjoyed their performances and derived many good tips, the biggest treat of the night came from an outlyer.

He was the opening act bandleader — a well-known, local horn player. This man is not conventionally attractive. He weighs well over 300 lbs. and is around 60 years old. As a lark, he presented a song. He moved slowly and painfully, and got up. Then he sang Little Girl Blue
with pathos — his voice soaring to a glorious falsetto, in turn brassy and bold, then dropping to an intimate, paper-thin whisper. “Why won't somebody send a tender blue boy to cheer up little girl blue." I was stunned. I could not close my mouth or stop smiling. That night, he was the sexiest man on the stage and it was his performance that stayed with me the most.

As I lay in bed that night reviewing the performances, I began to think of why I loved my favorite vocalists: Jeri Southern, an obscure singer from the 50’s, touches me with intimate vocals and vulnerability; Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn impresses with truth and musicianship; Holly Cole, a jazz singer from Toronto, amazes with originality and focus; Alison Krauss draws with silvery timbre and musicality; Ella exudes warmth, precision and tone; kd lang explodes with power and dynamic range; Mel Tormé seduces with smooth style and phrasing; Jane Monheit commands respect by overall mastery, song selection and interpretation.

Compiling the list, I realized not one of them was a conventional beauty. More important, as a fan, their looks were something I never once considered, loving them instead for their artistry, humanity and talent. I respect their work ethic, dogged attention to detail and professionalism and admire their bravery and creativity.

I do not think about their noses.

If I don’t succeed as a jazz singer, I suspect it will be because I got tired from the immense amount of work it takes to be great with so little initial return. Or, it will be the drain of preparing books and setting up sound equipment, or lack of venues for serious jazz. Possibly it will be the ridiculous amount of work it takes to promote a gig and get a crowd, or living in a small market city. Or, a creative block, beyond which I can’t go.

I don’t think it will be about my nose.

Monday morning, I’ll call the good nose doctor and cancel my pre-op appointment. And then, like most days, I’ll go down to the basement, open my book of tunes, and start working — hard.

 

On being loved fully and outrageously, like I deserve.

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First, a confession. For the first 40 years of my life, I did not feel worthy to be loved romantically. I projected an aura of superiority and self-confidence, but inside felt unlovable and undesirable. A lot of women do. We internalize slights from middle and high school and hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. We find ourselves lacking.

What cured me of self-loathing? At first it was becoming a musician and singing out publicly — finding a passion and that audiences liked me, they really liked me, as Sally Field once said. This flew in the face of my old story about being unattractive. Secondly, it was going through a painful, unwanted divorce.

To heal I needed to fully love myself, faults and all. Early in the separation a memorable moment occurred in front of a full-length mirror. I assessed my body and finally embraced its beauty, uniqueness and flaws. I loved it — and me, completely.

Loving myself was an important step to being loved, but before dating, I also needed to map out what a successful relationship would look like, so I created a vision statement for my new life. It painted a verbal picture of my new home; the atmosphere, art and music that would live there — the social life, vacations and spirituality I’d pursue.

I also envisioned the man in my life. He would be kind, hospitable, generous and fit. I imagined a mutually loving relationship with a lot of sex and affection. I wanted a man who adored me, would lay it all down for me, put me first and powerfully desire me. I shot not only for the stars but the whole dazzling Milky Way before even setting a foot in the dating swamp. This became the road map for my future.

A friend who had been single for many years warned about the lack of prospects in our hometown. “There are no good men. They are all taken. The only ones left are losers. Trust me — I’ve dated them.” I envisioned better for myself. I reckoned it was only a matter of time before Mr. Right came into my life. The key was to not be entangled with Mr. Wrong when he finally appeared. The more I loved myself, the easier it was to lose the Mr. Wrongs. And while setting the bar high might result in singlehood, alone and happy was better than coupled and miserable. The bar stayed high.

It didn't drop with that first man I dated who noted I was “loving and feminine onstage, but vulgar and boorish offstage.” Bye. It remained high with the wealthy but incurious man with only one thing on his mind and it wasn't quantum physics. He was stopped at the second date. Significantly, the bar didn’t lower when dating the well-off, fit and sexy plumber who had anger and jealousy problems. It was sad, but I ended it and was alone again.

Dave was not an obvious choice. He was a recent widower of a dear family friend. He was an artist like I was and quiet, probing, funny and smart. We started out as supportive friends with no thought of dating while I kept looking for Mr. Right. To our surprise, over time our friendship became romantic. We were remarkably compatible, sharing interests in museums, theater and music. We both loved to read, travel, entertain and wanted to create a house filled with love, respect and generosity. Most important, Dave wanted me — was willing to do anything to get me. Nothing came before me. The more he loved me, the lower my defenses became and the more I loved him back.

Newly single, I'd been told that “statistic” that a middle-aged woman had as much chance of remarrying as getting struck by lightning. But, that was a mindset of scarcity and desperation. Instead, I determined there would be abundance and love in my new life, if not specifically a new man. However, it turned out that accepting myself fully, envisioning an ideal life and keeping high standards became the magic path to the love of my life.

 

How to live like you’re dying.

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The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.

~ Psalm 103:15-16

When my daughter Louise was 15 years old, she decided she was ready for all-night coed sleepovers. This led to loud, dramatic discussions in which I was labeled as “unfair” and “overprotective.” Exasperated and out of options, I was inspired to explain my position in a different, more visual way.

I got out a piece of poster board. On it, I drew a long line width-wise. I labeled the left “0.” The right, I marked with with “80.” I explained to Louise, “This is a timeline of your life if you live to 80.” I placed a tick mark at the center of the line and one to the left of that and explained “Here is you at age 40, and you at age 18.” Then, I put a mark at 15 (her age then) and, using a red marker, connected the marks from 15 to 18. “This small bar represents the amount of time you have here before college; three short years.”

Finally, from 18 to 80 I drew a bright green bar. “The green bar represents all the time you have left in your life to do whatever you want. You’ll be on your own and there’s nothing I can do about it. You can be a stripper, a heroin addict, or a prostitute, if that’s your passion. So, how about you let me be your Mom for the next three years and not fight me so much?” She was silent as she took it all in. Things calmed down a little after that.

Numbers are powerful things. They do not lie.

At age 50, it was with my own timeline in mind that I considered quitting my corporate day job and becoming a jazz singer. On one hand, I could cruise comfortably until retirement, with good pay, benefits, and a pleasant job; on the other, take the incredibly scary leap into my lifelong passion. I contemplated the likely balance of time left to me, realizing I most certainly had less time before than behind me. My life was startlingly finite. So, I jumped.

I know a guy who toils at a barely tolerable day job. He is in middle management with a team of 11 and reports to a disinterested boss who was promoted to the position my boss should have received. Day after day he fades a little. Though he delights in his garden when he comes home, he does not have time to fully enjoy it. He’s too tapped out for friends or hobbies. He’s tired of his life.

His husband also works a job he would like to leave. His passion is selling used items on ebay and he’s brilliant at it. He buys low and sells high. He makes good money. With my boss' organizational skills and his husband's sales ability they could probably both quit their day jobs and make a killing in the re-sale market. Fear keeps them stuck.

I want to show him the timeline before it’s too late.

In my Buddhist practice I am instructed to ponder my own death during meditation. This is not morbid. For Buddhists, it is an exercise designed to remind us of the fleeting nature of our lives and to live meaningfully, mindfully, with purpose. It is over all too soon.

What is the nature of your life?
You are but a wisp of vapor
that is visible for a little while
and then disappears.

~ James 4:14

A few years ago, Tim McGraw sang a hit song titled “Live Like You Were Dying.” In it, he encounters a man on his deathbed who describes how his terminal diagnosis changed the way he lived:

And I loved deeper,
And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.
And he said “Someday I hope you get the chance,
To live like you were dying.

It is funny how pondering my own demise and the change it inspired has made life so much more vibrant and joyful. I have never been more engaged, excited, and fully alive than when pursuing my passion. I can’t wait to wake up in the morning.

It turns out, death is a great motivator.